Castles in the Air (and Backyard)

You may have had a swing set in the backyard when you were growing up or, if your dad was especially handy, a tree house. Nowadays, among America's affluent class, a "mere" swing set or tree house might qualify as child neglect. Instead, nothing less than a castle will suffice. Really. The "Atherton Castle" comes with a two-story, seven-foot-square "fort," and a ten-foot bridge that connects to another five-level fort with a "crazy bar" climb -- all for only $54,600. If that price seems steep, there's a "pirate's haunt" for only $35,000. Or if you choose to spend more, you could pick the $166,000 "Napa Valley Chalet," complete with cedar-shingle roofs, electricity, plumbing, and footbridge. Now that's a playhouse. This is more than conspicuous consumption. Castles for tykes are some of the more extreme artifacts of the mania that many Americans bring to parenting. This "madness" was the subject of a recent Newsweek story by Judith Warner, author of the new book Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety. Warner's experience and observations led her to ask why "arguably the most liberated and privileged group of women" in American history have "driven themselves crazy in the quest for perfect mommy-dom," making "high-pressured, time-demanding, [and] utterly exhausting kids' activities" an essential part of parenting? Her answer is that women "are unsupported, because their children are not taken care of, in any meaningful way, by society at large." They must face the "harsh realities of family life" without "structures" that will allow them "to balance work and child-rearing." If that sounds to you like a brief for government-supported daycare, that's because it is. But even if such daycare were a good policy idea -- I don't think it is -- it wouldn't address the major source of this "madness." Everybody knows that parenting is stressful. But why has it driven the women Warner describes crazy? As columnist James Lileks put it, the "madness" Warner describes is what happens when "a preposterous ideal is [confronted] by reality." Women who grew up believing that they "had fantastic, unlimited freedom of choice" find out that they can't be both "Corporate Warrior Princess" and "UberSuperPerfectRoleModelLove-GusherMom." Even women who don't buy into the "preposterous ideal" are affected, because the expectations of Warner's privileged class are spread by the media. A generation of American women -- and increasingly men -- is expected to be in the car and out of breath trying to keep up with their kids' schedules. What they really need, as Lileks writes, is to ignore "the set of internally contradictory expectations thrown" at their heads "like a big frozen watermelon." Instead, they should recall that parenting, as his mom taught him, consists of: "Be there. Be consistent. Be kind. Listen. Help." It's our presence, not their activities, that enrich our children's lives. If you can't enjoy your kids, the gifts and activities do not matter. You might as well start writing checks to their shrink now. Of course, being present requires making precisely the kinds of choices Warner wants to avoid -- which leaves many parents asking, castle or chalet?
For Further Reading and Information
Today's BreakPoint offer: BreakPoint WorldView magazine will equip you to talk to your kids about worldview issues all year around: from pop culture to science, human rights, faith, and more. Subscribe today: Call 1-877-322-5527. Don't believe those expensive toys mentioned in the commentary exist? See Barbara Butler's Play Structures. Judith Warner, "Mommy Madness," Newsweek, 21 February 2005. See James Lileks's blog entry on Perfect Madness (17 February 2005). Gregg Easterbrook, The Progress Paradox (Random House, 2003).


Chuck Colson



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